County Exec Defends Pensions, Says Adjustments Needed

From the VCStar. County Executive Officer Mike Powers defended Ventura County government’s pension benefits as among the most reasonable in California at a dinner Thursday sponsored by a taxpayers organization that has pushed for new controls.

The Ventura County Taxpayers Association in March proposed more than a half-dozen revisions to lower the public’s pension liabilities. The Ventura County Board of Supervisors responded in April to one of those proposals by suspending cashouts of vacation pay for new managers, a benefit that raises retirement checks.

No other changes have been made, which county officials say is a natural result of legal and labor concerns. Managers, employees and the Board of Supervisors, however, have continued to discuss various proposals.

Powers told the taxpayers association he first needed to find out where the county stands in comparison to cities and counties with which Ventura County competes for employees.

“We’re looking through these issues,” Powers said in his keynote speech before 100 people at the association’s annual dinner at the Las Posas Country Club in Camarillo. “The first thing we wanted to do was look and see where we are.”

Powers made the remarks during his State of the County address, which county CEOs regularly give to community groups. He focused much of his speech on county government’s services, strengths and health, noting its balanced budget and 10 percent reserve fund. In contrast, many other counties have been forced to cut jobs and put workers on furloughs, he said.

He also produced an array of charts, some showing new data on the average pension benefit drawn by county retirees. That benefit has been a sore spot for the taxpayers association, which won a lawsuit last year that forced the release of the names of county government retirees drawing six-figure pensions.

The public records showed more than 300 retirees were collecting more than $100,000 annually, for a total of $42 million a year. Their monthly pension checks often exceeded base pay in their final years of employment.

Powers presented figures showing that fewer than 8 percent of retirees are in the six-figure circle. On average, county government retirees are collecting $35,000 annually after 18 years on the job, he said. When only those retiring since 2006 are considered, the average increases to $42,000 and 19 years of service.

But the numbers vary sharply depending on the type of employee. Public safety retirees — sheriff’s deputies, district attorney investigators, probation officers and firefighters — have an average annual pension of $80,000. The figure grows to $92,000 if only those retiring since 2006 are considered. Public safety employees are not eligible for Social Security and work longer than civilian employees, 24 years on average.

Civilian employees who retired in the last five years but were hired after 1979 average $23,000 a year, while those hired before then average $62,000. Civilian employees also are entitled to Social Security income.

The pre-1979 employees enjoy better pensions partly because they get cost-of-living adjustments. Public safety employees get cost-of-living raises no matter when they were hired. Over 24 years with a 3 percent annual increase, those adjustments will double an individual’s pension.

Powers said the county has one of the lowest pension burdens at 22 percent of payroll, offers no retiree medical benefits and has a relatively low rate for figuring pensions. The county does not pay the so-called “3 at 50″ that allows a police officer to retire at age 50 at 90 percent of salary, for example.

But the taxpayers association says the so-called “add-ons” in the county’s pension formula can make that irrelevant. Overtime, longevity bonuses given after 30 years of service, cashouts of vacation pay and education credits and other benefits boost total compensation well beyond base pay, putting the county among the highest in California for final compensation on which pensions are based.

After his address, the audience quizzed Powers on how much employees were paying into their pensions and the pace of change.

“I have seen no meaningful change in the last year,” said Jim McDermott, a board member of the taxpayers group and the attorney who represented it in its pension lawsuit.

He doubted change would materialize when managers and elected officials have a direct interest in maintaining the status quo because they collect pensions themselves.

“I think we’ve already seen change,” Powers responded, adding that discussions are under way for others. “We do need to make some adjustments.”
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